Living Liberally Blog

Living Liberally Blog

It's-Down-To Two-sday

Two big states. Two big candidates. Will two-night be the night?

Super Tuesday has nothing on this.

If you're in NYC, join us at The Tank @ C:U at 279 Church Street from 7:30 on to watch the returns...will this be somebody's Alamo?

Or contact your local Drinking Liberally chapter to see where they are watching.

New Words For New Lows


Eating Liberally Food For Thought
by Kerry Trueman

Our ever-evolving culture gave me a new verb, a new phrase, and a new acronym last week. The verb is “googlemire,” and if you’ve ever been sucked into the Internet’s virtual vortex, you know exactly what it means. Word maven Patricia T. O’Connor used it on NPR the other day, but, ironically, the word’s so newly minted that you can’t google it, yet.

The first time I got googlemired was December 19th, 2005. At the time, I was getting paid to blog about food for a “healthy living” website. With Christmas around the corner, I set out to write an innocuous post about low fat eggnog.

I googled around in search of the best brands, which led me to Horizon, which led me to the revelation that this supposedly organic dairy producer with the famously happy cows on its cartons was, in fact, becoming infamous for cramming its cows into open-air feedlots that totally violated the intentions of the organic standards. I got sucked into the Agribiz muck and have been stuck there ever since.

Which brings me to the sad new shorthand for battered bovines: “spent dairy cows.” The Humane Society employed this phrase a month ago in reference to the Westland meat recall, noting that “15 percent of the hamburger meat in the United States comes from "spent" dairy cows.”

Last Thursday, the New York Times used the phrase minus the quotation marks, a sign that it’s officially entered our lexicon:

An investigator for the Humane Society spent six weeks working in the outdoor pens at Westland/Hallmark, which used spent dairy cows to make ground beef.

Before you dismiss “Downergate” as last week’s news, allow me to draw your attention to some details that beg for better coverage:

Downer cows are considered potentially unfit to eat because a cow that can’t stand up may be (a) carrying mad cow disease, and (b) may have wallowed in E. coli-tainted manure which might find its way from the cow’s hide to its carcass, and from there into our hamburgers.

But there are three standard factory farm practices that also cause dairy cows to stumble:

1. The high calorie, low fiber corn and soy-based feed they’re fattened up on—instead of the grass their bodies are designed to digest--disrupts the balance of bacteria in their digestive tracts, causing a condition called acidosis. Severe acidosis leads to ulcerations, which in turn causes an excruciatingly painful inflammation of the hooves called laminitis.

2. Injecting cows with rBST (aka bovine growth hormone) in order to increase their milk production creates a much higher risk of an udder infection called mastitis, which also leads to laminitis (along with pus-filled milk, ick.)

3. Astonishing as it may seem, cows are not biologically equipped to stand around on concrete floors all day; depriving them of the softer sod their hooves are meant to stand on and giving them little or no opportunity to lie down are two more open invitations to laminitis.

A dairy cow raised on pasture and spared growth hormones can produce milk for a decade or more and remain healthy, whereas illness is the norm for the average CAFO cow subjected to regular rBST injections; antibiotics are routine and these crippled creatures are used up, or “spent,” within a few years, at which point they’re sent off to slaughter and turned into hamburger, some of which ends up in our kids’ school lunches.

Which brings me to a Madison Avenue-manufactured acronym coined by “youth market analysts,” as the New York Times reported last week: KGOY, or Kids Growing Older Younger. The article was about 7 year-old girls getting pedicures and playing with make-up, but it’s part of a larger and--to me, anyway—insidious trend of girls reaching puberty at an ever earlier age.

Our hyper-sexualized, uber-consumer culture may be partly to blame (makeovers for 6 year-olds? How warped is that?) but scientists are also eyeing a whole host of environmental factors including the hormones that contaminate our food chain. No definitive link’s been proven, but--much to the consternation of the corporations who peddle these products--wary parents are avoiding antibiotic and hormone-tainted dairy products, meats and other foods for their kids’ sake and their own health, too, as more and more folks begin to wonder what all these adulterated foods may be doing to us.

Sadly, your desire to know whether the milk you buy came from an rBST-injected cow or how the meat you eat was raised conflicts with Agribiz and Big Food’s desire to turn a profit. So they’re pulling out all the stops to prevent you from having access to that information, with the help of “our” government.

On the rBST front, Monsanto’s launching a multi-state, Astroturf-assisted assault on the labels that currently enable consumers to select rBST-free dairy products. Read the gory details in a hilarious (if horrifying) “open letter to Monsanto” posted on the Ethicurean by Ali of The Cleaner Plate Club fame.

The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, meanwhile, is proposing a new label for meats that’s lamer than a dairy cow pumped full of rBST. The USDA’s new standard would permit a "Naturally Raised" label on livestock raised “without growth promotants, antibiotics, or mammalian or avian byproducts in their feed,” as another Ethicurean, Elanor, noted the other day.

Sounds great, right? However, as Jillian points out over on Daily Kos:

Consumer polls indicate the average person imagines meat labeled "Naturally Raised" comes from animals that spent their drug-free lives freely roaming the fields of a family farmer, eating wild flora and being humanely slaughtered. A 2007 Consumer Reports survey shows 83% of consumers assume such labeling means "it came from an animal raised in a natural environment."

The USDA’s proposed standard is, as Jillian astutely observes, “so weak it would apply to a cloned animal raised in the confines of a factory farm.” And that’s the idea, of course; it would dupe would-be ethical eaters into buying meat from feedlots, so Agribiz could profit from the demand for antibiotic and hormone-free meats. But what’s natural about shoving animals into indoor stalls so small they can’t budge and feeding them a diet that destroys their digestive tracts?

If you think that the label “Naturally Raised” should apply only to animals who have, you know, been naturally raised—i.e., allowed to graze in the great outdoors, treated humanely, etc.—you have until the end of TODAY, March 3rd, to submit your comments to the USDA. The Organic Consumers Association has an action form to make it easy for you to object to this Orwellian proposal (animal farm, indeed.) What are you waiting for? Make a moove!!!

Sustainable Songstress Sue West’s Rural Revival

I’m not sure what to call this musical genre: green bluegrass? Low carbon country? Whatever it is, I love it, and I think a lot of other people would embrace Wisconsin singer Sue West’s green-tinged, gospel-flavored folk music, too; it’s an authentic, timeless kind of music that hugs you back. As one fan wrote in an open note to Sue on CD Baby: “Listening to your music is like being rocked by strong arms.”

No doubt West’s own arms are pretty strong, since she makes her living as a sustainable farmer. When she’s not busy picking her guitar you might find her picking berries, particularly the wild ones for which her website, Wild Fruit Folk Music, is named, as is her first CD, Wild Fruit, of which she wrote:

I enjoy writing and recording songs about life here in rural Wisconsin. You may know me as the "Egg Lady." Life on the Rush River with my hens and my dawgs is full of poetic moments. I have captured many of them in the songs that I share through my performing and my cds. If you have any curiosity at all about what fills the thoughts of your local organic egg producer, look no further.

West’s a stellar example of a locally oriented eco-entrepreneur/artist, making a living by sharing the fruits of her labor, literally and figuratively. Her website offers such sustainably produced products as homemade beeswax hand balm and her own home-roasted coffee made from certified organic, fair trade Mexican Altura Chiapas. She sells the coffee “handground…in re-used recyclable bioplastic produce containers,” or, if you prefer to grind your own, the “whole bean is sold in homemade cloth bags made from "rescued" shirts.”

She’s just as eager to share her horticultural knowledge as she is her music and farm products; as a certified Master Gardener, part of her mission “is to learn about plants and to teach people what I have learned. As I research the big topic of native plants and permaculture, I will share my learning here.”

Somehow, in addition to doing her farm chores, making her balms and coffee, studying permaculture, and writing/performing her music and poetry, West also finds the time to cook, and to write about that, too:

As I worked in the kitchen tonight, I mused over the many newly-taught micro-decisions one faces when attempting to live green. Do I grab the easy canister of herbs from goodness-knows-where, or take time to go in the other room with scissors to tackle the rosemary shrub? Do I boil up some Kr*ft mac-n-cheese, or start peeling potatoes? Burger for protein, or some slower-cooking lamb grown by a neighbor?

Grandly, we think globally, act locally, but now, simply but powerfully, we cook at home. This choice can really rack up some good karma fast. We decide where and what to buy, how to make it, what should be done with the refuse of our feast, what the serving size will be, and with whom we shall share the bounty. If we eat out, we look for chefs that are making the same kinds of decisions, with the same concerns.

I’ve never been to Wisconsin, don’t know that I’ll ever have a chance to go, but thanks to Sue West and her determination to share the “peace, joy, and healing” that she finds “in nature and in my own sustainable farming efforts,” I can be transported to a rural community with whom this diehard New Yorker has more in common than conventional wisdom might suggest. And after all, who’s more in need of a soothing sustainable soundtrack than us harried city dwellers? Not to mention the beeswax balm; my hands are perpetually chapped from all the wringing.

Originally posted on

Let’s Ask Marion: What Can Wal-Mart Do To Promote Sustainability?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Food Politics and What to Eat:)

Kat: My question for you this week comes courtesy of Rand Waddoups, Wal-Mart's Senior Sustainability Director (or something like that). Apparently, he's been reading Michael Pollan, and it's got him thinking about what his employer--who happens to be the number one food retailer in the U.S.--could do to fix our broken food chain.

Waddoups posted an entry on Wal-Mart's corporate blog on Tuesday entitled "Sustainable Industrialized Food?" in which he quotes Pollan's observation that we're "eating a lot of edible food-like substances, which is to say highly processed things that might be called yogurt, might be called cereals, whatever, but in fact are very intricate products of food science that are really imitations of foods."

He then asks:

I know food, in general, is a very sensitive topic for a lot of people, but what do you think should and can be done in the short term to make the industrialized food chain better? What products should Wal-Mart have that they don't to meet your desires for a more sustainable food assortment? If you could choose one item you would want removed from stores, what would it be?

Dr. Nestle: Remove one item? I'd say cigarettes--which is what Wegmans has already done--but I think it's the wrong question. Wal-Mart needs to ask a different question: What could Wal-Mart do to promote a more sustainable food system?

Here, the answer is lots. Retailers control the food chain. If retailers say "we insist that our suppliers demonstrate that their foods are grown sustainably," guess what: they will be. So how about Wal-Mart sets up some standards for the production of foods it sells? That ought to have an immediate impact.

The GOP's Still Partying Like It's 2006

Jack Abramoff's name returns to the headlines
as John McCain is questioned on secret emails
suggesting that "Straight Talk" may be all-talk.

Karl Rove re-emerges on the frontpages
in a story of political manipulation & abuse,
as Newsweek's guy makes news rather than observes it.

Harriet Miers steps back into the spotlight
as Congress was forced to hold in contempt
Bush's one-time pick for the Supreme Court.

You'd think they'd learn, but basically...
the GOP's still partying like it's 2006.

McCain already promises four more years
of Bush's war & Bush's economy...
do we get Bush's cronies & corruption as well?

Raise a glass to scandals gone by,
and another to the ones that keep coming back,
as you share your views & a little booze
at your local progressive social club.

Find - or start - a chapter near you.

A Conversation with Chris Metzler, Director of "Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea"

Screening Liberally Big Picture
By Josh Bolotsky

We recently had the opportunity to have a conversation with Chris Metzler, director of Screening Liberally NYC's February selection, the critically acclaimed Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea. We talked about Sonny Bono, John Waters and where his film fits (or doesn't fit) into the recent spate of eco-documentaries.

How did you come to this project?

Like a lot of things in life, it was purely coincidence. I grew up in the Midwest - I didn't even know that the Salton Sea existed when I moved out to Los Angeles for school - and one day, decided to take an exploratory road trip, camping with a friend and maybe checking out other parts of the dessert - you take a few wrong turns here and there, and you wind up upon this huge body of water, the Salton Sea, and just kind of quickly fall in love with it, just based on water being out in the desert in such huge amounts, but secondly, the kind of apocalyptic landscape, which was my own fascination. That's got things started. Congressman Sonny Bono had been interested in restoring the Salton Sea, seeing it as both an environmental wetland, and also a place for resorts and boating and fishing…as a result of this discussion about making Sonny’s dream come true, we wanted to explore how those attempts at restoring the Salton Sea were going to go.

It seems like the residents of the Salon area have become used to extravagant promises laid at their feet every couple years, whether it be through Sonny Bono, or the [longstanding] hope it will become a large retirement community - in making the film, was that something you had to consciously overcome in gaining their trust, that you weren’t going to be someone coming in with promises as happens every few years.

That was one of the difficult things that Jeff [Springer, co-director] and I anticipated from the beginning – we knew that the Salton Sea had this long history of nothing ever being done, and that most of the film and news coverage of the Salton Sea had been very negative. Given how just complicated a place this was, [we figured] it deserved some unbiased, entertaining journalism. Once we started meeting people in the community, there was something that drew them to us - we didn't have to overcome any inherent skepticism… and most embraced us from the get-go. Maybe it’s just because so much of the other coverage of the Salton Sea often dealt with politicians and scientists and they really just appreciated that we were going straight ot the people who had lived in, thrived and struggled in the community for so many years.

One unique aspect of the film is that you're talking about an potential ecological crisis which, unlike a lot of the eco-documentaries that came out in the last several years, is not directly related to climate change..Have you had difficulty explaining to people this is a separate issue?
The Salton sea being such an obscure issue…drawing attention to it and explaining why it's an important film in addition to being entertaining does present a problem. That's one of the reasons why when we market the film and present it to people, we [emphasize] the carnivalesque factor. 'Come and watch this movie about what these unique people have created in this place you’ve never heard of.' In a lot of discussions we try to have with people after the screening, [we tend to present it as] a microcosm of these larger environmental issues that are going on in other parts of the US and the world…Some of the things you see going on down there could, through climate change, happen elsewhere. It’s a great example of the environment run amok, whether you discuss the flooding that happened in the 1970’s, and how that relates to Hurricane Katrina, or the rapid evaporation of the water of the Salton Sea, and the dust storms that might be affected, that relates to climate change, [similar to those in] other parts of the world, where, if temperatures continue to rise, you’ll have more exposed dried lake-beds…In a way the Salton Sea is a parable to other things that the larger part of society might have to deal with in upcoming years.

How did you get John Waters? His voice is so perfect for the film.

At first we didn’t really want a narrator, because we wanted to let the people of the Salton Sea to speak for themselves. But given some of the larger issues which were difficult to condense and explain in interviews, we decided we needed to rely on a narrator, and we thought, if we needed to use as narrator, we needed some a little unorthodox and untraditional, and John Waters came to mind given his unique voice, but also his own deep affection for people who live on the fringe…As we started doing a little bit more research on John Waters, and watching his films from a different perspective we also recognized that while we often associate his films with comedy, with a camp value, all of them deal with these undercurrents of larger social issues…Coincidentally, he was friends with Sonny Bono from his film Hairspray, and kind of liked the idea of doing this as a payback to Sonny, who had done something really important for him.

What are your next projects after Plagues?

Both Jeff and I are drawn to projects about outsiders – we think those are the ones who are the real risk-takers in society because they've decided to live life in the way they want to. We have some projects going on [in this vein,] one about evangelical backpackers Christians following the path of the Apostle Paul, a documentary on gay truck drivers, another on outsider artists in the south – the documentary coming out later this year is one on the black punk band Fishbone…We try to disguise our films as entertainment, with a lot of information in there.

Mocking Fox News...While On Fox News

Laughing Liberally To Keep From Crying

One of our beloved Laughing Liberally regulars, Lee Camp, had the golden opportunity this weekend to tell us what he thinks about Fox News...while on Fox News.

After having performed for both Yearly Kos's and for the Young Democrats of America, it's nice to know that Fox News got to meet the same gentlemen us liberals know and love - as did Dan Abrams. Congrats, Lee!

Feng Shui Fast Food: McDonald’s Puts the "Chi" in "Ka-Ching!"

Well, of course, where else would you expect to find America’s first feng shui’d fast food outlet? A McDonald’s in the Los Angeles suburb of Hacienda Heights has opted to bag the golden arches’ classic red, yellow, and plast-icky décor in favor of “leather seats, earth tones, bamboo plants and water trickling down glass panels.” As the AP reports:

…the restaurant's owners say the designs are aimed at creating a soothing setting that will encourage diners to linger over their burgers and fries, and come back again.

One of the owners, Mark Brownstein, explained that he and his partners hope to benefit from their proximity to a renowned Buddhist temple, which is supposed to bring good luck. They’re also betting that the more serene setting will attract the area’s growing Asian population, as well as other customers seeking to “tap their inner Zen,” as Brownstein put it.

Now, I happen to be a big fan of feng shui myself, despite having spent my whole adult life as a jaded New Yorker. Some vestige of my Valley Girl childhood compelled me to pick up a paperback called Feng Shui Tips For a Better Life a few years back. This handy little how-to persuaded me that I had nothing to lose by hanging a few strategically placed wind chimes and mirrors and painting my front door red.

When my feng shui “cures” actually started to work, I became a believer and even an amateur practitioner of sorts, advising friends on how to cope with a toilet located in their “relationship corner,” or a collection of chi-crushing clutter (chi being the “life force” that gets squished under stacks of unread New Yorkers or neglected Netflix.)

The layout of our own apartment is the reason why Matt and I are so obsessed with food, according to Sarah Rossbach's “Interior Design with Feng Shui:

The placement of rooms within a home can affect residents' behavior…For instance, the room nearest the entrance will, by the suggestive nature of its use and contents, determine residents' lifestyle at home—particularly if it is located very close to the main door….
If the first room is a kitchen…the household will be food oriented. The sight of the kitchen will create a Pavlovian need for food, encouraging excessive eating.”

The doorway to our kitchen is barely a foot from the entrance, so food seems destined to be the center of our universe, if you buy into feng shui theory.

The Hacienda Heights McDonald’s is buyin’ it, but while its décor has been overhauled to inspire good health, happiness and prosperity, the menu is still larded with the same old artery-clogging, cruelty-contaminated animal products. Talk about a chi-killer! Oh, that Agribiz aftertaste.

If McDonald’s really wants to create a healthier, more life-enhancing dining experience, they might want to fine tune their feedlot-flavored menu. Yeah, I know they sell salads; they just don’t promote them. Consider the "dollar menu"; you can get a double cheeseburger, or a side salad. Which do you think most folks are gonna choose? Would it kill them to offer an entrée salad for a buck?

Too bad Bob Langert, McDonald’s Vice President for Corporate Social Responsibility, just went on sabbatical a couple of weeks ago, or I’d ask him why McDonald’s continues to come up with gluttony-glorifying, planet-polluting stuff like the Angus Third Pounder. As the experts who met at an Oxford University-sponsored health conference in Sydney last weekend just announced, obesity and other "lifestyle diseases" are killing millions more people than, say, the terrorism our government is spending billions to combat.

The Sydney conference attendees also noted that “insufficient physical exercise is a risk factor in many chronic diseases and is estimated to cause 1.9 million deaths worldwide each year,” so I’m sure they’d applaud Langert’s decision to take a break and work on his backhand. If only his time off would also encourage some forward thinking. Sorry, dude, but bad food will never be good feng shui.

Let’s Ask Marion: Who Benefits From Bio-Tech “Breakthroughs”?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Food Politics and What to Eat:)

Kat: Scientists and bio-tech companies have been tirelessly tinkering with plants and animals in pursuit of such innovations as E-coli-resistant cows, crops with built-in pesticides, and pigs whose poop is less polluting. Biotech boosters tout genetically modified crops as the solution to everything that ails the world, from hunger to drought to depleted topsoil to oil dependence.

Meanwhile, the Frankenfood-fearing faction worries that cloned cows, omega-3 enhanced sows, and errant seeds from genetically modified crops will unleash a pandora’s box of health, environmental, and ethical issues.

But are we letting our justifiable distrust of corporations like Monsanto blind us to biotech’s bright side? Are there any technological breakthroughs that represent real progress, or are the scientists too busy putting probiotics into Pop-Tarts (or whatever) to accomplish anything truly useful?

Dr. Nestle: I'd say the Pandora's box is already wide open. That's why I wrote Safe Food (Univ. of Calif. Press, 2003). In it, I tried to distinguish the health from the environmental and ethical issues and to consider each set of them separately. Because the biotechnology industry only considered health issues--and discounted ethical issues as irrelevant--it made two serious mistakes. It over-hyped the benefits of the technology, and it lobbied successfully against having to label foods as genetically modified. First, the non-labeling: it turns GM foods into something shoved down consumers' throats. If you want to avoid them, tough. You can't.

The over-hyping leads directly to your question about whether food biotechnology does any good at all. What good are they to anyone other than patent holders like Monsanto? I am willing to grant that several GM products are useful, if not breakthroughs, but the list is short: (1) pharmaceuticals such as recombinant insulin (more reliable than other methods), (2) chymosin, the enzyme required for coagulating cheese (it sure beats killing baby calves for their enzymes), and (3) papayas with genes for resistance to ringspot virus (I like papayas).

Beyond these, I think the benefits are still in the realm of theory. I wish the industry would do some serious work on solutions to problems of third-world agriculture--nitrogen-fixation and drought-resistance, for example--but those are difficult scientifically and who would pay for them? Biotech companies are not social service agencies; they are corporations. So instead, they did GM soybeans and corn.

Maybe something like the Gates Foundation would be interested in funding useful research, but the industry has behaved so badly--fighting labeling, persecuting farmers, protecting patents above all other considerations--that it has lost whatever credibility it might have had at one time. That's why ethical issues matter.

No Way Bush Makes the Hall of Fame

A scandal of deception & hubris
shook Americans faith in their institutions
& Congress rushed in to take action.

Hearings came quick, with bold questioning,
& people were held accountable for misdeeds
as the public tuned it to watch.

A proud Texan stuck to his guns,
even as his story frayed, opinion turned,
humiliating him & threatening his legacy.

Now...if Congress can do it to Clemens,
why on Earth can't they stand up to Bush?

Treat the pumped-up case for illegitimate war
like pumped-up, illegitimate athletes...
& there's no way Bush makes the Hall of Fame.

If only Congress had some way
to punish the President more seriously...

You'll never strike out sharing your views
as you share some booze with left-leaners
at your local progressive social club.

Find - or start - a chapter near you.